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Trial and Error: How This British Expat is Teaching Young People to Embrace Failure

The Failure School wants students to be comfortable with giving and receiving feedback

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BY Adelle Chua - 24 May 2017

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

Phil Smithson recalls having what sounded to him like a neat idea for a start-up – and letting it stew for two years.

“I was too scared to fail,” the expat from Kirkbride, United Kingdom says.

That idea was teaching Tagalog to expats like himself in the Philippines. Since moving to Manila in 2009, Smithson has since learned the language, not by studying books but by conversing with as many locals as he could: his colleagues in the software company he was working for, vendors, helpers, and people on the street.

He learned the language so well that if you had your back to him and heard him speaking you would think he was another Filipino yuppie – until you turned around and saw a tall, bearded Caucasian.

And yet at that time, he doubted himself. “Who am I to learn, much less teach, Tagalog? I was pretty much convinced nobody would be interested. So I did not do anything,” Smithson says.

Embracing failure

“Most people see failure as something scary, wrong or bad,” Smithson says. But over years of conducting design thinking workshops for his other start-up, On-Off Group, Smithson discovered that only by doing something wrong thing can people find ways to do it right.

What can go wrong, you ask? Plenty, Smithson says. A product, a campaign, a memo, book or brochure, program, course design – anything, really.

There is also the specter of what the next generation might demand of us. What skills will they need? What technologies would supplant people's expertise and make humans redundant?

Smithson believes that schools are doing poorly in preparing kids. “I spent four years at university back home, but when I started working, I realized I was still not ready,” he says. “Even the skills I was taught did not quite match the job.”

According to him, today's – and the future's – ideal member of the workforce is not somebody who spends long hours sitting in a cubicle. “What are needed are tenacious people, human centered with a lot of empathy. Companies value people who can think creatively.”

Old school, new school

He believes it is never too early to prepare the youth. The solution he sees seems to be getting failure out of the way.

This summer, Smithson launches The Failure School, open to young people between the ages of 16 and 22. The first run will begin on June 10, with 10 students who will undergo a combination of workshop and homework. They will be tasked to identify problems, break it down into components, and propose solutions.

But that is not all.

The highlight of The Failure School would be asking the students to present their work to their peers, who will then critique it.

“People are not used to putting their work out there,” Smithson says. “The idea is to make these kids comfortable with giving and receiving feedback.”

These are skills you hardly learn in the more traditional methods of school.

Desired results

Smithson wants the workshop to be a transformative experience for its participants – student or professional, working in whatever industry. The ideal products of The Failure School are individuals who are more accepting of – and undaunted by – failure.

And what of that idea he was too scared would not take off?

Smithson has finally acted on it. The app is available for download. The lessons are broken down into practical modules:  breaking the ice, office situations, shopping and bargain hunting, socializing and ordering food, among others.  Learn Tagalog Fast takes a different approach than your usual language school. There is focus on speaking. The courses are personalized; the classes are one-on-one. There is unlimited system support, there is a free trial, and payments can be made online or offline.

Then again, it’s a work in progress – as everything is. Smithson quotes Elon Musk: “Failure is an option. If things are not failing, you are not innovating enough.”